Clash Persists on 86th Street in Bensonhurst

Home Business Clash Persists on 86th Street in Bensonhurst

Daniel Roberts

Jerusalem Fruit Market on a weekday. Photo: Emilio Guerra/Flickr Creative Commons

On the north side of 86th Street, Bensonhurst’s main commercial shopping drag, some stores have taken advantage of the generous sidewalk to display their products well out into the walking space. This has created something of a turf battle, and all parties are heated. Both merchants and pedestrians wonder: Whose sidewalk is it, anyway?

The cramped area begins right by the D-line Bay Parkway subway stop, at the intersection of 86th Street and Bay Parkway. Fruit and vegetable markets line 86th Street from here all the way down to 23rd Avenue. Pedestrians can feel immediately that they are entering a defined zone; boxes of fruit line the sidewalk and blue tarps stretch overhead, tied to lampposts-a city violation, according to Marnee Elias-Pavia, District Manager of Community Board 11.

Following requests from Community Board 11, agents from the Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Health, and the Department of Sanitation conducted a walkthrough this past July. The groups issued 112, 29, and 12 tickets, respectively. “But within 24 hours, it was business as usual,” said Elias-Pavia.

During the week, most of these shops adhere to the rule of a fourteen-foot extension limit. It is on the weekends that stores suddenly bulge at the seams, and rules are forgotten. When walking down 86th Street, after crossing Bay Parkway, the first business in the problem area is Jerusalem Fruit Market. Plastic crates of produce extend far past the market’s actual door, leaving only five feet or so of sidewalk open to pedestrians.

Frankie, a young Hispanic employee of Home Tex, a convenience store located next to Jerusalem Market, said that as he understands it, “Fourteen feet is the rule. I get my line and I arrange the stuff every day and it doesn’t cross. Other places,” he says while glancing next door at fruit boxes that spill messily into the street, “they break the rule.”

Indeed, Mohammed G., who runs the store Everything 99¢, made this clear. “Sure, I get the tickets, but I don’t really care.” He went on to explain that he, and other merchants on his block, simply pay the tickets and go on with their business, because the fines are not large enough to hurt their profits or merit pulling their wares in from the sidewalk.

Thus the perceived need for a two-day educational seminar, which city agents offered on October 12 and 13 at the Brooklyn Studio School on nearby 83rd Street. Before the start of the first evening, officials were out on 86th Street encouraging merchants to attend the seminar. Approximately twenty people showed up, a turnout that Elias-Pavia said she was “pleasantly surprised to see.”

Inna Zaslavskaya, Director of the Neighborhood Naturally Occurring Retirement Community’s Good Neighbors program at the Jewish Community Center, said that the 86th Street shopping situation is one of the center’s biggest focuses right now. Harvey Greenberg, who spends time at the center, said on behalf of his fellow senior citizens: “It’s very tough for the old folks. Very cramped.”

It was Zaslavskaya, along with the Senior Advisory Committee, who first drafted a letter to Elias-Pavia detailing the problem. “Our community has been upset for a while. Another problem of the markets is that items fall down into the street and people slip on them,” she said.

Eve Jonas is another senior who has lived in the neighborhood since childhood, and she believes the 86th Street clash comes out of the racial and socioeconomic changes that have come to Bensonhurst in the past decade. She and many of the seniors place much of the blame on the recent influx of Chinese immigrants. About half of the stores in the crowded area seem to be staffed by Chinese, most of whom speak limited English and therefore were not accessible for comment. “I do feel that the Oriental people have invaded Bensonhurst,” said Jonas hesitantly. “Some of them are lovely people. But some of them act like they don’t know nothing.”

Greenberg echoed her sentiments: “The neighborhood has become crowded with Chinese, and they do whatever they want, it seems like. There’s got to be a stop, because sooner or later they’re going to take over the whole sidewalk and everyone will be walking in the gutter.”

Yet Elias-Pavia expressed sympathy for those who run businesses on 86th Street. “Merchants are facing tough times as well. There are many business managers that are in compliance. And it’s unfortunate that because of a few who aren’t, the whole street gets labeled,” she said.

One idea raised at the seminar was the possibility of merchants forming some sort of union. Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia, Jr. attended the event and encouraged the merchants to get organized. “There are certain grants available that he’s willing to give to help them if they start a merchants’ association,” said Elias-Pavia. “I think there was a show of interest. They all agree that they can’t survive continuing to be ticketed.”

Whether a merchants’ association would help the businesses of 86th Street thrive better is unclear. Although Elias-Pavia is excited by both the seminar’s high turnout and the possibilities raised there, she still admits some skepticism as to whether the area will improve. “There are some merchants that really don’t care, and they won’t change. But many of them really want to clean it up. So we’ll see.”

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